Accountability has somehow become a crucial topic of media and public discussions in Pakistan following the startling revelations made by the Panama Papers last month. Ever since, the opposition political parties have been forcefully making a demand for the initiation of a rigorous accountability drive in the country. Obviously the instant dismissal of a number of high-raking military officers on corruption charges last month has also provided the great impetus to similar demands for accountability, being presently made by various quarters in the country. In this backdrop, the recent proactive actions taken by the NAB against the corrupt senior officials in the province of Balochistan are also being viewed very positively.

As a matter of fact, the opposition’s current political manoeuvring for accountability necessarily revolves around the incumbent PML-N government. The ToRs jointly drafted by the opposition political parties require the proposed inquiry commission to thoroughly probe against PM Nawaz Sharif and his family, extending the scope of inquiry to scrutinise all the properties sold and bought by them since 1985. Apparently, the Panama Papers have provided a great and golden opportunity to the ever-ambitious opposition parties to conveniently articulate their political interests. Therefore, on the pretext of accountability, they all look quite determined to oust PM Nawaz Sharif.

On the other hand, the ToRs framed and referred by the government to the apex court require the proposed inquiry commission to probe against all Pakistanis named in the Panama Papers. Besides this, the government is also desirous of nabbing loan defaulters through this probe commission. Now, the Panama Papers have released another list, revealing the name of some 400 more Pakistanis for owning off-shore companies. Apparently, the incumbent government intends to make the proposed inquiry commission complex and a confusing hotchpotch of diverse inquiries against numerous individuals, thereby diluting the Panama leaks issue to save its own skin. In fact, presuming an inquiry commission comprising only three apex court judges, will instantly and effectively overcome Pakistan’s all failings, shortcomings and deficiencies vis-à-vis the so-called goal of across-the-board accountability, would be quite disappointing frustrating at the end of the day. Certainly, for this purpose, we have to adequately mobilise our accountability institutions in the country.

Observably, ‘accountability’ has been one of the most popular political slogans in Pakistan since its inception. This very instrument was extensively employed by successive military and civilian regimes to garnish popular support. Similarly, most of the accountability drives in the country have more been the typical witch-hunting exercises – victimising one’s political opponents for obvious reasons. Therefore, in the absence of political will and required resolution on the part of their formulators, all the accountability regimes in the country – 1949’s Public Representative Offices Disqualification Act (PRODA), 1959’s Public Offices Disqualification Order (PODO) and Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EDBO), 1997’s Ehtesab Act, and 1999’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Ordinance- badly failed to evolve into vibrant accountability institutions in Pakistan.

For a long time, the ruling class has been readily employing the instrument of accountability to wash their opponents’ dirty linen in public while protecting their own skeletons in their political cupboards. However, in this respect, there was a ‘change of heart’ when two major political parties, PML-N and PPP, signed the Chartered of Democracy in 2006. Under this ‘historic agreement’, both parties formally decided to exclude the word accountability from the political lexicon, identifying it as one of the greatest potential threats to democracy in the country. Ironically, it was the only point in CoD which was sincerely and diligently observed by both parties during their subsequent political rule in the country. In this way, the already-decaying accountability institutions ware deliberately rendered weaker and dysfunctional.

For a long time, successive regimes have been obsessed with the idea of establishing a premier accountability body – like the Ehtesab Bureau and NAB – to perform the entire task of accountability in the country. In this respect, it has been ignored that various anti-corruption and regulatory bodies are always required to proactively perform their respective institutional role to ensure an effective and efficient accountability regime in a polity. Aimed at effectively combating corruption and malpractices, a number of anti-corruption bodies have been established in Pakistan. Presently Pakistan has only focused on the NAB to curb the menace of corruption instated of mobilising and relying on other institutions like FIA, the Anti-Corruption Establishment (ACE), Federal and Provincial Ombudsmen, Tax Ombudsman, the Public Accounts Committee of the National assembly or the Auditor General of Pakistan. Similarly, all the complementary components of criminal justice system have an important role to play.

Necessarily in line with the well-known prevention-is-better-than-cure principle, a public sector regulatory body is also generally considered to be an effective instrument to prevent and contain corruption in a country. Therefore, a state is always required to actively mobilise its entire regulatory mechanism to ensure transparent and good governance. In Pakistan, NAB’s Prevention Committee claims to assist and advise various regulators in their efforts to ensure good governance through internal controls and accountability. A number of regulatory bodies have been established in Pakistan e.g., SBP, SECP, CCP, OGRA, NEPRA, PEMRA, PBC, PMDC, HEC, DRAP, CAA. However, these regulators have utterly failed to effectively perform their entrusted tasks since no government has ever seriously tried to improve the efficiency and institutional capacity of various regulators functioning in the country.

There are always two pre-requisites for an efficient anti-corruption regime – a set of stringent anti-graft laws, and an independent agency to strictly enforce these laws. Regrettably, both these things have essentially been missing in the national discourse in Pakistan. Consequently, corruption has deeply penetrated society. Replacing the Ehtesab Act, 1997, General Pervez Musharraf promulgated his much-trumpeted NAB Ordinance, 1999 to ensure swift and across-the-board accountability in Pakistan. However, like its predecessor, this law too failed to make a major difference to combat corruption in the county. The NAB Ordinance also introduced the very practice of ‘plea bargain’ – providing a legal mechanism to NAB for assets recovery. Section 25 of the Ordinance empowers the chairman NAB to release, before or after the commencement of trial, any person accused of any offence under this ordinance if he returns the assets or gains acquired through corruption and corrupt practices. Therefore, in practice, NAB has now become more an assets recovery agency than an accountability body.

Besides an efficient accountability regime, the prevailing political culture has also an important role to ensure transparency. Our political culture has never been so conducive to actively pursue the very objective of across-the-board accountability in Pakistan. In the absence of effective accountability institutions, the ruling elite has become quite habitual of ruing the affairs of the ‘Islamic Republic’ in a monarchical and arbitrary fashion. Similarly, there are many ‘sacred cows’ in the country, which have also become accustomed to act in rather a bullish way. Now, no one can question the infallibility and sanctity of these sacred cows.

The Panama Leaks have exposed the miserable, and rather pitiable, state of our accountability institutions in the country. Despite a number of startling revelations made by the Panama Papers against hundreds of Pakistanis, no state institution has yet started seriously looking into this matter. The government and the opposition are busy in their tug of war over the nitty-gritty of the proposed commission. Now serious and serious endeavours are direly needed to eradicate corruption in all its forms and manifestations. Therefore, instead of politicising the so-called Panama-leaks issue, the current positive synergy against corruption should wisely be utilised to revive and revitalise our dysfunctional and ailing accountability institutions in the country.